There’s been great interest in experimenting with crop residues for bedding, and although no one professes to have a perfect solution, there is a lot to be learned from those with growing experience, which means talking to Darin McDonald, a farmer who has baled it all.
Equipped with a 150-horsepower tractor and either a Hesston or New Holland large square baler, McDonald manages over 500 acres of hay with his cousin on their farm based in Winchester in eastern Ontario.
McDonald says they also keep busy baling hay and straw for several other farms in the area. But in recent years, they’ve been asked to bale soybean residue and corn stalks as well. In fact, he now has some customers who specifically ask for soybean straw.
“Soybean straw is always cheaper, so it doesn’t matter if there’s lots of wheat straw,” McDonald says. “If the soybean straw is cheaper than the wheat straw, people will buy it.” McDonald estimates the cost of soybean straw is about 30 percent less per bale. But it isn’t just the cost that has pushed his production beyond 2,000 to 3,000 bales annually, which is more than they can supply from their farm alone. “Some people prefer it not because of price, but because they say it’s more absorbent,” McDonald says. “One guy even says there’s fewer flies with soybean straw than regular straw.”
There’s no livestock on his farm, so McDonald can’t share any first-hand experience using soybean straw himself. But he’s very comfortable describing a high level of expertise in working with it in the field. Compared to other types of straw, McDonald says it’s relatively painless to harvest. “You pick your window and it’s the easiest thing to make,” he says Most of the time there’s no need to rake it. “Well, maybe the odd time you have to rake it, but I mean, if it’s going to rain for a week, who cares, just let it rain and whenever it dries up or freezes a bit, there’s usually a window.”
As the only crop residue he harvests in the fall, he finds the crop benefits from far less humidity in the air and starts off much drier than other straws. McDonald says soybean residue is consistently the driest thing he bales, normally reading less than 10 per cent on the moisture tester
“Frost at night seems to help dry it out,” he adds.
The other thing he likes about harvesting straw so late in the season is that there’s no longer a worry of weeds growing while it’s waiting for you to get around to harvesting. “It depends on the weather but it’s usually pretty clean in the fall, it’s just a patience thing,” McDonald says.
If there’s a downside to harvesting soybean straw though, it’s yield. “Taller beans yield better for sure; you might get four or five bales to the acre with the right combine, but if they’re short beans, and the wrong combine, you might only get one bale to the acre,” he says.
What kind of combine is the right kind for maximizing soybean straw? In McDonald’s opinion, it’s got nothing to do with paint.
“If a guy has a small head and the combine chews the stalks all up, it’s hard to pick up,” he says simply.
But even with the “the right combine,” McDonald says soybean straw isn’t a revenue generator for the cash-crop operation as much as it can be a cost saver for mixed operations in his area. Since fusarium tends to be so severe, most livestock operators will tell him they’re “growing straw” when they refer to a wheat field. “The wheat isn’t worth anything,” he says.
Jaime Grier runs a mixed operation an hour west of Darin McDonald at Lands-downe, and he normally relies on purchasing straw rather than sacrificing profitable soybean or corn acreage. That’s how he came to buy soybean straw from McDonald in 2014 for the first time, since straw from other sources was short and expensive.
“We started off just using it in the pack barn for the heifers, putting it through the bed chopper,” Grier says. “That worked so well that when we got low on wheat straw in the dairy barn, I started chopping it in the hay shed and taking it in chopped up.”
One day when he didn’t have time to chop it, he just tried shaking out a bale. “That worked, so we quit chopping it,” he says. It wasn’t as dusty using a fork in the dairy barn as it is running the bales through a bedding chopper, which is about as dusty as combining the soybeans in the first place, Grier says “I don’t think it looks as nice, but it seems to be fairly absorbent… it’s a little prickly, but the cows don’t seem to be uncomfortable.”
Grier had planned on baling some of his own soybean stubble this year, though McDonald warns it will cause more wear on the baler than cereal straw, though less damage than corn stalks. But Grier says he tried putting in some oats for a cover crop last year and now he finds himself with all the straw he could ask for, not to mention way more oats than a couple of pet horses are going to eat.
Ivan Peterson, who’s dairy farming not far from McDonald in the Osgoode area, says he started baling soybean straw after finding himself facing similar conundrums seven or eight years ago. “We don’t grow wheat, so we don’t have any other kind of straw, and we grow 600 to 700 acres of soybeans, so we have lots of soybean straw available to us.”
On average, most years you’d get one to three bales per acre of soybean straw yield. You’d also get somatic cell count (SCC) problems he says. “It’s not our preferred product, I can tell you that,” he warns. Only when they can’t get shavings do they use soybean stubble for bedding anymore. “Shavings are more absorbent and we seem to be able to get the somatic cell count better under control.”
Grier says that at his place, their somatic cell count is usually under 100,000 and it never changed when they started using the soybean straw or when they switched to oat straw. “But our cows have trainers and tail ties, so maybe that’s the difference,” he theorizes.
Peterson says he gave the soybean straw a chance first in his tiestall operation, and second in the new freestall barn with deep pack bedding stalls and robotic milking units. He agrees that management plays a big role in making soybean straw work on a dairy operation.
“When I milked by myself in the tie-stall, I was between 100,000 and 150,000 SCC all the time,” he says. Before investing in a robotic barn, he tried to keep his tie-stall facility operating by increasing from two milkings per day to three.
That meant hiring help, which also meant giving up some control on the milking process, and that’s when troubles with the SCC count started.
But for Peterson, using soybean straw for bedding up heifers doesn’t appear to negatively impact SCC, and he still sees it as a good fit for the operation. So, when shavings are hard to source, he can use soybean straw to get by, chopping 80 bales at a time, storing it under cover, then moving it by skid-steer on a weekly basis.
“You want to keep soybean straw stored inside because it will not keep outside,” Peterson emphasizes. “Those bales rot worse than anything.”
Next year, Peterson is hoping there will be 100 acres of wheat to harvest straw from and save at least some indoor storage space. But he isn’t planning to retire the soy straw completely either. “We’ll still use the soybean stubble,” he says, “there’s more money in selling straw.”
When late summer and early fall present a period of lower cash flow, Peter-son says wheat can generate some extra revenue and soybean straw can’t. Not that he’d consider selling soybean straw though. “It’s too valuable on the field for that,” he insists. “I would never sell it off my own farm.”
Jim Christie, who has a robotic milking operation on the other side of Toronto in Tara, Ont., isn’t sure soy straw offers that much value in the field. In his opinion there just seems to be so little volume. He’s become much more interested in canola residue after he started baling up soy straw. This was the first year he’s ever grown canola on the farm and he says it looks like he can get twice as much yield from canola as he did from the soybeans. Plus it comes off earlier, for more of a working window into the fall.
Although it’s too early to say how well it will work as bedding, when we spoke, Christie has already observed several advantages.
“You’d think canola would be a lot of stalk, but there’s a pile of pods,” he notes. “We’ve got a bunch of it big square baled and it chops really fine. Being hollow in the middle, it just shatters. Soybean stalks don’t; they stay like little wooden sticks.”
Unlike Peterson and Grier, Christie has to pay very close attention to bedding materials because his cows are housed on a compost pack. The materials he uses to feed that pack have changed, but the process remains the same. Every morning, that pack is deep ripped and levelled and every evening, it gets cultivated. Christie says that since they started bedding this way two years ago, they’ve tried using wheat straw and it didn’t decompose very well.
“Because of that waxy coating, even two weeks after you bed up with wheat straw, you can still pick it out of the compost pack,” Christie says. He still uses wheat straw for bedding up the dry cows, but since he had soybean straw for his heifer pack, he tried adding some of it in early on too. “The shredded soybean straw breaks down in a couple weeks and you can’t even pick it out,” he says. Now he’s applying what he’s learned to canola residue.
The trick to producing nice soft bedding is processing. “The first stuff we did, we put through the harvester,” Christie recalls, “but it didn’t break down as quick as sawdust.”
Last winter, they got a Bale Buster with fine screens. “More or less, instead of chopping it, you’re shredding it,” Christie said. “When you grab hold of it after it’s gone through, you don’t feel any of those stems, it’s nice and soft, and breaks down a lot quicker.”
Christie says he could rely completely on sawdust, which he has experimented with as part of the bedding mix, but he figures it costs five cents per pound with delivery. However, this spring he discovered recycled drywall only costs an estimated one and a half cents per pound, so it now accounts for nearly 50 per cent of the bedding mix.
All that lime keeps the cows nice and clean he says, which could partly explain why using soybean straw hasn’t had a negative effect on his SCC when other farmers have.
In Christie’s eyes, it remains an ongoing experiment on his farm as much as it is on any other operation that’s always searching for the perfect bedding solution.
This article first appeared in the February 2016 issue of Soybean Guide